Posts Tagged ‘Svetlana Alexievich’

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

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On war

May 25, 2017

I bought another of Nobel award-winning Svetlana Alexievich‘s books recently: this one is about women’s experience of war. And I’ve found myself thinking: why do I read so much about war – novels, history and so on, why do I visit so many historical sites connected with wars? You have only to look back through the archives of this blog: isn’t there something slightly obsessive, unhealthy about this? I do wonder, sometimes.

We know there have been wars ever since humans have existed on the planet: somewhere I read once that in the last two or three thousand years of history there have only been about a hundred and fifty years where the world has been at peace – whatever that means.

Reading about war has shown me what an utterly vile species we are in terms of how we are prepared to treat each other. And yet, I have also come across countless accounts of astonishing acts of bravery and altruism. One might rather crassly argue that these two extremes cancel each other out; equally I might argue that without war, neither would occur, and that would surely be better for us.

Reading about war has made me profoundly grateful that I’ve never been called on to be tested in any of the ways I have read about; even more, I recognise how very fortunate I am to have grown up in a time of peace (at least, in the sense that my country has not been involved in a war which means attacks on our territory putting me and my family at risk… actually, writing a sentence like that one so as to be completely correct and accurate is impossible, but I’m sure you get my drift).

Having grown up during the ‘Cold War‘ (don’t politicians and the military love euphemisms!) made me realise at quite a young age that a war between Britain as a member of NATO and the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘our’ side would be attacking countries where member of my family lived, and that ‘their’ side would be likewise attempting to kill us… and made me decide that I would never take part in such craziness. As I said above, I’m very grateful never to have been put to the test.

The more I’ve read and thought, the more I have come to think how utterly utopian it is to expect that things will ever be any different. I don’t think that war can be eliminated from our world without some kind of world government, and somehow I don’t see that happening in the near future. Neither can war be eliminated while the capitalist system persists, and I don’t foresee any end to that in short order. And the human ingenuity that has invented all sorts of gruesome weapons will continue, too, and what has been invented cannot be uninvented…

To look at today’s world briefly: many in the West are alarmed at the numbers of refugees flocking to our shores: it seems blindingly obvious to me that one way to address this would be to stop destroying their countries in the first place! We are very good at fighting proxy wars everywhere, and war is really good for business; although ISIS and Al-Qaeda have sprung from the fundamentalist Saudi Arabian variety of Islam, our leaders continue to buy enormous amounts of oil from that country and to sell it phenomenal amounts of weapons. And our leaders and businessmen are much safer from the random acts of terrorism that continue to afflict us, than ordinary people are.

Back to my first thought about being obsessed by war: I think it’s part of my quest to understand why the world is as it is, and to imagine how it might be different – one day, perhaps, long after I’ve left it…

Svetlana Alexievich: Second-hand Time

January 1, 2017

31-sknsa7il-_ac_us200_I really don’t know where to start with this book: it’s probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever read, and will go around in my head for ages. I’m not really sure it’s anything a Westerner can fully comprehend…

Some context first: Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She’s written about Soviet veterans from Afghanistan, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and, in this, her latest book, the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She’s not a novelist or a poet: she gets ordinary people to speak, and presents the reader with their words. Hardly the stuff a Nobel laureate is made of, I found myself thinking, but then, she actually does the same as any other writer: she selects, orders and presents; only most of the words aren’t hers. Only twenty-five years have passed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and already a serious amount of annotation is needed for the reader to begin to understand much of what is said.

In one way, the book stands as a tribute to those who really believed in their ideals and strove against the odds to bring them to fruition; their memory deserves to survive. Not everyone who lived in Soviet times repudiates those times, though we are often led to believe they do. We hear from real Russians: they are given voices and allowed to speak; they deserve a hearing and respect. They speak of comradeship, of common efforts, of how they defeated fascism, of how they built a great and powerful nation in far less time than any western land.

Some recount the almost unbelievably bloody past of Stalin’s era; some are proud of their part in it (!): I reminded myself of every nation’s bloody past – the British Empire, the United States’ treatment of the original inhabitants of that land, their treatment of non-whites… fill in the blanks for yourselves. Some recount the horrors of ethnic conflict once the Soviet umbrella disappeared, and it’s incredibly scary how quickly and easily everything erupted and how savage it became. Many are appalled at the savagery of the dog-eat-dog capitalism that was released with the advent of the market, how they were deceived, deluded and robbed. And, as well as the voices of the losers, we hear from some of those who came out on top.

It’s when I try to make sense of the book at a deeper level that I’m utterly thrown: was it Lenin, Stalin, communism that allowed such misery and such horrors to be perpetrated? Were all those people who thought they were slowly and painfully building a better future utterly deluded fools? In the end, is all human existence a bitter struggle for who gets to the top of the pile and sh*ts on everyone else? If so, we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive.

I can’t accept such a simplistic analysis, in the end. Mistaken struggles for a better world are still attempts to make something better, and the genuineness of the wishes and beliefs of many ordinary Russians shines through. And Russia has not been blessed with an easy history, has not followed the same tracks as the ‘democratic’ West. Capitalism was determined to bury the Soviet experiment, and did so through the arms race; it cost the West a fortune but it cost the Soviets everything. And when the Union collapsed, the West supported the sharks in the sidelines. Most importantly, the example, the alternative, though dreadfully flawed other way of looking at things was abolished, no longer an danger, no longer able to support other experiments around the world: ‘There is no alternative’.

I have to emphasise, this is my current take on a monumental book. I think anyone who wishes to express an opinion on those times should read it.

2016: my year of reading

December 31, 2016

Looking back on 2016, I’m struck by how little reading I’ve actually done this year – only 51 books finished, the lowest total since 2001. There are a couple of ‘started and paused, probably given up’ (Celine’s Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, and Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower, if you really want to know). And I’ve managed to reduce my acquisitions for the year to 38, which is a reasonable achievement in my judgement; it would have been considerably lower but for a spree in November… And I’ve continued with the culling of the library too, although I’m not sure it really shows.

My blog – this one, which you are currently visiting – has been a bit more popular this year, in terms of visits and people signing up for regular access, although I can’t say I’ve made the big time. I have been a little surprised by what have been my most popular posts: both of the following have pretty much the same number of reads. There’s Theodore Kroeger’s The Forgotten Village – I’m not sure why so many have wanted to read about this obscure volume; it’s recently been republished in France, which is where my copy came from, but the visitors haven’t been from there. And then there was Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass, an even more obscure book on the future of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); I suppose many of those visitors may well be Quakers who have heard about the book. And I get visitors to the blog from so many different countries, though not unsurprisingly the UK and USA head the list.

Awards for 2016

Best new book: definitely Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, which I’m currently devouring and will review later, when I get to the end. I could have given the award to her book Chernobyl Prayer (see below)

Weirdest: probably Vassili Peskov’s Ermites dans le Taiga, a true tale of a family totally isolated and surviving in the depths of Siberia for almost forty years without any other human contact.

Best non-fiction: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich. You haven’t read anything about the Chernobyl accident until you read this book. The first chapter will break your heart.

Most disappointing: Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit, by Celine, which I’ve felt guilty about for years for not reading, and started this year, but put down for something more interesting. It wasn’t that the book was boring or unreadable, just not gripping enough to keep me interested; I’ve kept thinking that I’d go back to it but so much time has now elapsed that I’d probably have to begin again, which I can’t see myself doing.

Resolutions for 2017: repeat last year’s to buy fewer books, read more, and diminish the pile of unread books sitting in piles everywhere. I’m also, slowly, contemplating the possibility of a re-design of this blog, so that it looks a little less austere, and is perhaps a little easier to find your way around. Would that be a good idea, or do you prefer it as it is?

And so farewell to the world of words for 2016.

Svetlana Alexievich: Chernobyl Prayer

May 11, 2016

51QT-vnBv4L._AC_US160_I remember the disaster at Chernobyl happening thirty years ago. A major recollection is the Western attitude: it was crappy communist technology; it could never happen here. I’ve never believed that. And we are perhaps about to have new nuclear plants built here in Britain by the Chinese…

For complex historical reasons, a branch of my family found itself, not through choice, living in what was then the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the single territory most affected by the disaster. I have no evidence to link them with the disaster, but a couple of members of our family died unexpectedly young of cancer after the ‘accident’. There were stories of luminous rain at night at the time of the accident.

Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her writing last year; it’s easy to see why. This book is a series of monologues – obviously prompted by questions – from a wide range of people whose lives were affected by what happened. It is one of the grimmest and most harrowing things I’ve ever read.

It’s framed by two lengthy pieces from two women whose partners were some of those who went in at the very start, with no thought of the consequences to themselves, to mitigate the consequences of the accident. They both died, very unpleasantly. Other stories are just as chilling, in other ways: the two year-old who begged for his father’s hat, and developed a brain tumour. The little girl born with so many body parts missing or mutated that I could not believe someone like that could have lived…

Apparently the equivalent of the radioactive fallout from 350 Hiroshimas is distributed randomly over the territory of Belarus… But the most shocking thing of all, that comes across repeatedly, is that people cannot comprehend the nature of the silent, deadly disaster that has happened to them, and so they continue as normal. Belarus, after all, suffered horrendously in the Second World War; its people knew what war, disaster, horror meant. Here, they refuse to leave, they go back, they produce, sell and eat their crops; people loot, steal and sell stuff on the black market; the radioactivity is distributed across the entire nation and more widely…

The attempt to clear up is Pythonesque: everything is supposed to be buried, even contaminated soil… and there aren’t the resources, there isn’t the organisation to do any of this properly. It’s very easy to talk about communist inefficiency and corruption meaning that it was chaotic, but I cannot see how any country anywhere, faced with a catastrophe of this magnitude, would be able to cope sensibly and rationally.

Alexievich’s monologue format works really well: ordinary people are allowed to speak. Their intelligence – or their ignorance – shines through; their bravery, or recklessness and stupidity is evident. People’s loyalty to their country, and willingness to do whatever was necessary to tackle the immediate consequences of the accident is very clear; chaos and confusion only unfolds later on. She allows experts and lay people to speak, those ‘responsible’ and frauds, the young and the old. I read compulsively, fascinated and horrified.

This is a link to an article I came across just before I wrote this post:

Germany had so much renewable energy on Sunday that it had to pay people to use electricity

 

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